Intermountain student files federal lawsuit

It wasn’t unusual for problems at the BIA’s Intermountain School in Brigham City, Utah, to make the front page of the Navajo Times, given all of the times it had been investigated by the BIA and the newspaper. But no one expected what happened in May 1971.

One of the students at the school, Teddy Austin, 21, filed a federal suit in the Utah District Court, trying to force the school to shut down.

Austin, president of the school’s chapter of the National Indian Youth Council, said that students at the school were being mistreated by personnel.

He also claimed that the people in charge of running the school had enacted policies that caused an unconstitutional system of segregation and racism.

His other claim was that the school violated the peace treaty signed between the Navajos and the federal government in 1868 whereby the federal government promised that all federally funded boarding schools would be located within the boundaries of the Navajo Reservation.

Because of negative stories about conditions at the school, readers of the Times were well aware of the problems at the school, which included the inability of teachers to control the conduct of the students and widespread drinking by older students on weekends.

The school had a student population of 1,600, the great majority of whom were Navajos. No other BIA boarding school had anywhere close to that Navajo student population.

The school had been built with $14 million during World II to take care of servicemen who needed long-term treatment for war injuries. The hospital was shut down in 1948 but was reopened as a school in part to provide employment to residents of Brigham City.

The suit, which also listed the National Indian Youth Council as a plaintiff, had a long list of harsh criticism of the school’s teachers.

The suit called teachers at the school incompetent because of their inability to speak the language of the students. They were also accused of punishing any student who was seen practicing traditional ways. Instead, the school encouraged students to become members of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

Male students who came to school with long hair were handcuffed and held down as their hair was cut. There had been numerous cases of teachers using offensive language toward students found violating school policy.

Any letter or package that came in was first opened and examined by school personnel who were also given the task of examining student’s luggage as they came or left the school.

There were also cases of students being injected with tranquilizers if they were found to be drunk on campus.

The BIA at first issued no comments after the suit was filed but, later in court filings, the school’s attorneys denied the accusations or said they had no knowledge of the practices being alleged to have occurred.

Some 40 Navajo parents, after hearing of the allegations, removed their children from the school but twere replaced by students from other tribes.

Raise for chairman OK’d

Peter MacDonald, who was making $20,000 a year as chairman, was given a raise by the Navajo Tribal Council to $30,000 a year. The salary for vice chairman went from $15,000 a year to $25,000.

The Council approved the salary increases after Carl Todecheenie, who represented Shiprock on the Council, presented a list of salaries of some high-ranking government officials in the area.

The BIA’s Navajo Area director made $34,000. The Shiprock Agency superintendent made $30.000. The director of the Navajo Area IHS made $20,000 and the president of Navajo Community College made $24,000.

At the same meeting where they approved the raise for MacDonald, it was reported that the Council is looking at appropriating $1 million in tribal funds to provide relief to Navajo farmers and ranchers who now find themselves facing severe financial problems because of the collapse of the wool market in April.

The Council was told that tribal members have about three million pounds of wool in barns and warehouses. At last year’s going rate for wool – 30 to 35 cents a pound – this would provide enough funds to make up for any losses.

The wool would be turned over to the tribe, which would then be responsible to find a buyer. Navajo Vice Chairman Wilson Skeet said he felt the tribe would find a buyer if they cut the price to nickel or less a pound.

The big question, however, dealt with future sales.

The tribe cannot afford to pay the top price and then sell it for far less every year. National wool buyers said they expect that wool prices could reach 10 to 15 cents a pound due a lot of ranchers getting out of the wool business because of the slump in the market.

On the other hand, they expect the overall demand to keep decreasing as more substitutes for wool come onto the market.

Skeet said the tribe would probably be able to get more for this year’s wool if they stored it for a year or so to take advantage of the higher prices expected next year.

But he also pointed out that any extra monies they receive will probably be covered by the extra costs to store them.

About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.


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